The High Court has overturned a disciplinary tribunal finding against a barrister found to have pestered three women at a chambers summer party.
Mrs Justice Lang said the medical evidence established that, on the balance of probabilities, Stephen Howd’s “inappropriate, and at times offensive, behaviour was a consequence of his medical condition”, exacerbated by excessive alcohol.
“In these circumstances, Mr Howd’s behaviour plainly was not reprehensible, morally culpable or disgraceful, as it was caused by factors beyond his control,” she ruled.
“In my judgment, it did not reach the threshold for a finding of serious professional misconduct.”
Mr Howd, formerly of Zenith Chambers in Leeds, attracted considerable press coverage last year after a Bar Disciplinary Tribunal fined him £1,800 for failing to act with integrity and behaving in a way likely to diminish the trust and confidence the public places in a barrister or in the profession.
The events complained of took place at the Zenith Chambers summer party in July 2014. The tribunal found him guilty of pestering two barristers and an apprentice administrative assistant, but cleared him of similar allegations in relation to a junior clerk.
The tribunal was chaired by Nigel Poole QC, with Kenneth Crofton-Martin as the lay member and Georgina Gibbs as the barrister member.
They accepted that Mr Howd did not intend his actions to cause offence or to make the complainants feel uncomfortable, but concluded that the lack of intent in his drunken state did not excuse his conduct.
The tribunal found that excessive consumption of alcohol drove him to act as he did and his medical condition did not make a significant contribution to his conduct.
Mr Howd appealed against the finding, while the Bar Standards Board cross-appealed to have the sanction increased.
The nature of Mr Howd’s medical condition was kept confidential in the ruling, but Lang J said she was satisfied that the tribunal “misunderstood and misapplied the medical evidence” in reaching its conclusions.
She continued: “I have had the benefit of seeing more comprehensive medical evidence than the tribunal, as further evidence was adduced at the appeal.
“In my judgment, the medical evidence established, on the balance of probabilities, that his inappropriate, and at times offensive, behaviour was a consequence of his medical condition.
“It also established that his excessive consumption of alcohol was very likely to have been a response to the onset of his medical condition, and it probably had the unfortunate consequence of exacerbating his disinhibition and loss of judgment on that occasion.”
Lang J agreed also with Mr Howd that the tribunal misconstrued the meaning of ‘integrity’ in the BSB Handbook’s third core duty (CD3) that ‘You must act with honesty and integrity’.
This was intended to cover professional integrity not personal/sexual morality, she explained. “The term ‘integrity’ must take its colour from the term ‘honesty’ in CD3… and connotes probity and adherence to ethical standards, not inappropriate and offensive social or sexual behaviour…
“In my view, Mr Howd’s conduct was not appropriately charged as a breach of CD3, because, although it was inappropriate and at times offensive, it did not demonstrate a lack of honesty or integrity. The charges under CD3 ought to have been dismissed.”
In principle, Lang J continued, Mr Howd’s behaviour could be capable of diminishing the trust and confidence which the public placed in him, as a barrister or in the profession, contrary to the fifth core duty (CD5), since it occurred in the course of his professional life, and was not an entirely private matter.
“However, if the public was aware that his behaviour was a consequence of a medical condition, and so lacked any reprehensible or morally culpable quality, it would be unlikely to diminish their trust and confidence in the profession or in Mr Howd as a barrister, provided he was fit to practise.”
A Bar Standards Board spokeswoman said: “We note the judgment of the court. Whilst disappointed, we have no further comment.”